When New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas took office in 2006 at the age of 33, he made headlines as the youngest Hispanic statewide elected official in the US. Last week, Balderas drew attention again when he announced that 61 state agencies are behind on their audits, yielding a total of $1 billion in unaccounted-for state funds—enough to eliminate New Mexico’s budget shortfall and then some. Balderas, a former prosecutor and state representative, grew up in tiny Wagon Mound, NM and plans to back two bills in the next legislative session: one to withhold funding for delinquent agencies until they pay up, and another that would make it a misdemeanor for state agencies to report misleading information in their audits. This week, Balderas shares his thoughts on fiscal accountability.
There are no financial consequences, and there is no punishment for agencies being unaccountable to taxpayers. I’m trying to create fiscal consequences that don’t exist in [the] law right now and also potential criminal punishment for behavior that’s very egregious. It’s currently state law to have to submit annual audits, but there [are] no teeth behind the law.
I find it very offensive that public agencies would spend tax dollars and then not submit a proper accounting for those dollars to justify their spending to the general public. And these agencies are also going to go back to the Legislature and ask for more money before they even deliver the proper accounting to the state auditor or the taxpayers.
It’s a national crisis. There are states and federal government agencies that are all struggling with the issue of accountability. It just has not been a public policy priority.
Everybody’s focused on public corruption, but if you have truly accountable systems, you won’t have public corruption.
If New Mexico was a car, you have people wanting to patch it up with bodywork. I’m trying to focus on looking under the hood. People want to put a Band-Aid on issues of corruption and abuse, when in fact they really should be looking at the systemic causes, which [are] lack of accountability, lack of oversight.
I grew up in a town of 300 people, in poverty, where the most important institutions in our community were the Department of Transportation and the local public school. I saw firsthand that every public dollar in Wagon Mound was to be respected because it was basically our survival. That’s the No. 1 personal experience in my life that’s really driving me to try to change the culture and the expectations of public agencies and how they spend public dollars.
Public schools are a very high priority for me because I think that when there’s theft or fraud or embezzlement at a public school, it has the most harmful effects on the community. Part of it is that I have kids. I also am very focused on making sure vulnerable populations aren’t taken advantage of.
It is premature to think of tax increases—to going back and taxing the public or laying off employees and cutting services—when in fact we haven’t even looked at that $1 billion.
Government can do a much better job in managing those affairs, not because of some kind of ethical mandate but because they owe it to the citizens of New Mexico. Citizens really rely on those public dollars.
Fiscal accountability is the top public policy challenge facing New Mexico. All the other issues are much easier to resolve when you have an accountable education system, an accountable health care system. How they’re run is unmanageable at this point.